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How watching kids play with Lego turned into a crash course in creative leadership

They reminded me that I needed to make an effort to put myself in unfamiliar situations in order to grow.

How watching kids play with Lego turned into a crash course in creative leadership

When I was asked to judge the World Robot Olympiad finals in Thailand this past November, I was expecting a nice break from my day job that might lead to inspiration. What I didn’t expect was to be schooled by a bunch of kids in the creativity department.

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As a CMO, my job is to inspire. World Robot Olympiad draws some of the best young minds in STEM and robotics from all over the globe. I was blown away by the skill and thoughtfulness that went into each design and approach. These kids came from different parts of the world, and each group addressed specific problems from their countries and communities. A team from Japan tackled their country’s food waste with a robot that grinds leftovers into a nutritious powder and turns it into candy, while the Chinese team addressed overpopulation by developing a robot to tend to underwater farms that can be maintained offshore. These kids not only identified pertinent national and global problems, they also addressed them with empathy and out-of-the-box thinking.

I learned a lot from spending time with kids and Legos–including about what it takes to demonstrate creative leadership. Since returning, I’ve changed my outlook and implemented many of the lessons I learned from the competition in my own work at Juniper Networks. Here are five suggestions for anyone looking to add more creativity into their routine or their team’s:

1. Don’t get shackled by convention

Generally, there are two types of creative thinking: one that is sustained over weeks to generate long-term projects, and one that’s on-the-fly and allows you to pivot in critical situations. I saw both on display during the World Robot Olympiad.

Contestants have months to prepare the different tasks their robot must complete. The rules are set, the tasks are clear, and they’re racing against the clock. However, on the day of the competition, they get a “surprise” rule that they have to incorporate within a matter of hours. This means that they don’t have time to fine-tune and iterate for a single solution. As a result, those that built their robots to adapt performed the best. Teams that hard coded their solutions had a tough time adjusting and performed poorly.

This is a smart lesson for marketers. We should always expect the unexpected and prepare ourselves accordingly, and devise our plans with that mentality in mind.

2. Embrace differences

One fascinating aspect of a global competition is the different ways teams approach a problem. As I watched them prepare their robots to face off in a soccer match, the team from Russia exemplified how mini workplace ecosystems should function. One girl was a natural leader. She delegated tasks for the team to execute in line with the overall vision, while another detail-driven team member pointed out a minor malfunction that would’ve inhibited the robot’s sensors.

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This was a great reminder that everyone has different strengths. Whether you’re sitting in a boardroom with C-level executives or a team of engineers, when you break down the silos and create a space where everyone has a voice, you come away with better results. We’ve worked to diversify our teams at Juniper–both in terms of backgrounds but also thought process and skillsets. There is plenty of evidence that shows diverse teams make a company more innovative, and I’ve witnessed that embracing differences does lead to productivity and success.

3. Step out of your comfort zone

For many of these kids, the competition was their first trip outside their home country. For most, it was their first time in Thailand. On top of this, they’re dealing with the pressure of representing their country on a global stage.

I can’t remember the last time I was in such an unfamiliar, high-stakes situation, and I’m not sure if I can come up with a parallel in my own life to match a kid competing in a foreign country. Watching those kids reminded me that it’s essential to step outside of my comfort zone and make an effort to put myself in unfamiliar, challenging situations. It’s the only way to force myself to grow.

When I asked a young girl from Romania what her favorite thing about being part of World Robot Olympiad was, she said it was realizing she could do it. She’s onto something. Even if we don’t come out as winners, doing something challenging always makes us stronger.

4. Find ways to engineer your sense of creativity

We all gradually lose some of our creativity–it’s a side effect of growing up. When I feel like I’m missing the spark, I remind myself of one of my favorite children’s books, The Little Prince. It shows how kids can imagine a world of creation that adults have lost the ability to see. In the corporate world, we have been conditioned to approach a problem through the lens of strategy and execution rather than thinking creatively about different possible ways to tackle a situation. The kids I saw weren’t bound by structure or molded by convention. They saw a range of possibilities that we adults are blind to.

I’ve found that changing my environment can help me jump-start my creativity. At Juniper, we started hosting workshops off-site where teams can brainstorm over a few days. That change in scenery allows employees to speak freely and get away from an unintentionally stifling office environment. It’s crucial to cultivate spaces for creativity to take place.

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5. Respect the passion

When you strip away the challenges and criteria, my real job at WRO was judging creativity. I had to walk the delicate line of providing constructive criticism and honoring the effort, as well as choosing a winner. As a CMO, this is a big part of my job–determining which campaigns come to life and what stories need to be told. Critiquing creativity is one of the most challenging aspects of my job because it requires a respectful and delicate approach. You’re asking people to go out on a limb to bring forward an idea that may seem wild, unconventional, or even a little weird. As managers of creative people, we have a responsibility to respect and cultivate passion and out-of-the-box ideas. We need to make sure that those who finish in 10th place feel just as respected as those who finish first.


Mike Marcellin is the chief marketing officer of Juniper Networks.

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